Pepper Spray, Football, and Other Words that Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Last night, as Army Guy and I sat down for a late dinner at Galway House, tables filled with (mostly) large (mostly) men shouted at the plasma screens as men in tight pants ran around and jumped on each other*. Eating at Galway House is like eating in your uncle’s rec room, if your uncle were Irish and liked Pabst Blue Ribbon and had a lot of boozers for friends — and liked to cook you really tasty food.

This was the first time I’ve been there during Monday Night Football season. Football, cheerleaders, and NASCAR aren’t really my thing, but I do love the Galway, in part because you’re as likely to find a Lesbian Avenger at the booth next to you as you are a member of the IBEW. And as Jamaica Plain follows the same path of gentrification that Cambridge and Somerville have, I find myself more and more drawn to the places I avoided when I was younger and upwardly mobile.

Last night we had to shout to hear one another, though, which was less pleasant. And looking back on the evening, I find the context of our conversation that much more disorienting. Surrounded by middle-class Americans enjoying a quintessential American pastime (drinking beers and watching football), Army Guy proceeded to explain to me the meaning behind the innocuous-sounding headlines I’ve been hearing on the radio. It wasn’t tabasco they were spraying on the faces of those kids who linked arms and sat down at U.C. Davis. It was a chemical compound 15 times as strong as a habanero pepper. And they didn’t just spray it at them. According to U.C. Davis Professor Nathan Brown’s open letter to the school’s Chancellor (which has since become a petition):

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

There’s more. This article in the Atlantic documents use of “less-than-lethal” force against OWS protesters across the country. The Washington Post also reports on “esclating protests”.

Our police are attacking our own citizens — our own children — with chemical weapons and clubs because they linked arms and sat down and refused to move. I turn on the news and I don’t know whether I’m hearing about Cairo or California. History is happening before me, and I’m watching it from the sidelines, more confused than a schoolchild will be in forty years reading about it from a book.

“It’s been fifty years since the 1960s,” I shouted across the table last night as our neighbors drank beer and watched football.

“Yes? And?” he replied.

“I guess it’s time for another round.”

We paused and contemplated the flat-screen TVs, the tinsel snowflakes and shamrocks that dangled from the ceiling.

“All those years ago in the 80s when people were telling me I was born too late while I ran around with a long skirt and a peace sign around my neck… I wasn’t born too late, or too soon. I was born at just the right time.”

I think about language, and how the language we use betrays our beliefs. As the bifurcation of America continues, I wonder how long it will be before we can agree to use any of the same words at all. Nonviolence or nuisance. GLBT or homosexual. ObamaCare or health care reform. Austerity or social injustice. Pepper spray or chemical agent.

And I realize something about myself, something disappointing and also something that makes me settle deeper into a sense of who I am. My days of protesting are over. I won’t be camping out in Dewey Square, although I will donate money and materials to those who do. I’m not brave enough to link arms and sit down in front of men in uniform holding weapons. But I trust that I have a purpose, some bit part in history to play, even if it’s a stack of journals in a dusty attic and a neglected little blog. And I will cheer my team on the plasma screen as I eat my steak at the Galway.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that at least one screen was dedicated to the Bruins (hockey) rather than the Patriots (football). There is no line of sight in the Galway that does not include a plasma screen TV.

Review: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo

This review of Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo is re-posted from my Goodreads feed.

In January 1919, a 2.3-million-gallon tank of molasses located in Boston’s bustling North End burst, wreaking death and destruction in its wake. Most people — myself included — laugh in disbelief when they first hear of the incident. But the towering wave, which traveled at 35 miles an hour, claimed the lives of 21 people, and transformed the North End into a moonscape, was deadly serious. Puleo does an admirable job of extracting a living tale about this event from dry court records and newspaper accounts.

The circumstances of its construction, its failure, and the criminal and civil trials that followed all serve as a focal point for the major forces sweeping through the country at the beginning of the last century, including industry’s increasing footprint on the American economy, the impact of World War I and the Prohibition, corporate negligence, and the radical anarchist movement.

Puleo’s book focuses on the lives of the individuals surrounding the case — not the major historical figures we usually read about, but the ordinary people who lived and worked in the North End neighborhood, built the molasses tank, managed the plant, and investigated the disaster afterward. His storytelling is grounded in primary sources but manages to bring alive an event that happened almost 100 years ago and had a profound impact on the way business is conducted today.

Book Review: Sword of the Lord, by Andrew Himes

With his newly released book Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, Andrew Himes creates a history that is both well-researched and deeply personal. It’s a history that’s about more than dates and place-names. It’s about the struggle of a people to survive and thrive in a foreign land. And it’s about the ties of blood that bind Himes to these people, from their roots among the Scots-Irish — “a troublesome group of dirt-poor, hardscrabble farmers and fighters in the borderlands and lowlands along the Scottish, English, and Welsh borders” — to his own family heritage as the grandson of influential fundamentalist preacher and publisher John R Rice.

Many elements of the journey — the American Revolution, the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s — will be familiar to Americans with a standard public school education. But Himes has managed to tell these old tales anew, through the eyes of his own ancestors. They were often on the losing side of these cultural and political battles, and Himes makes no apology for them. What he does do is tell their story with an unflinching eye and a compassionate heart.

The book focuses on the lives and struggles of Himes’s forebears, however it’s clear that it only came about because of a journey that Himes himself undertook: one of rejection and reconciliation. If Himes had not rejected his own fundamentalist upbringing, he would not have had the emotional distance necessary to speak so frankly about its rigid, judgmental legacy. But if he had not been able to reconcile himself to it, the book’s tone would have been unbearably vitriolic. As someone who has gone through a similar journey, I can appreciate the time, work, and insight required. He writes that the book took about 30 years to research and write. I, for one, am glad that he didn’t rush it. I doubt that he would have been able to write the following 30 years ago:

I can identify several specific ways in which my training as a fundamentalist bore good and healthy fruit, though I’m aware that a statement like that may be greeted with some skepticism by those who have only witnessed the world of fundamentalism from the outside. As a fundamentalist, I learned that it was perfectly all right for me to have an idea or outlook different from most folks … I learned that it was acceptable to be passionate about my values, and to care deeply about the consequences of my actions … I learned that faith and community are essential to life.

In a recent interview, Himes said that he expects the most passionate audience for his book to be conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. I hardly fall within that demographic — as even a cursory perusal of this blog will reveal. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think that most Americans — especially the ones like me — would benefit from reading it. I appreciate that the book steers clear of the extreme and inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes so much of America’s current culture wars — on either side of the issue. Himes is not trying to win your soul for Jesus, nor is he mocking the deeply held beliefs of fundamentalists. He’s just doing what every good writer ought to do: telling a compelling, relevant story. And he’s got the footnotes to back it up.

Read my interview with Andrew Himes here

Interview with Andrew Himes, author of Sword of the Lord

Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out.  So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.

That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.

Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?

Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.

Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.

My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.

Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?

Andrew Himes:  Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.

Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?

Andrew Himes:  Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.

Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?

Andrew Himes:  My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.

I Still Can’t Believe It

In my lifetime…

…a black man became President-Elect of the United States of America.

…same-sex couples are now legally married.

That is all I have to say. I want to just revel in the success for a while.

And both of them gifts. Requiring just the most minor amount of effort on my own part.

Both of them worthy of crying tears of joy.

Neither of them did I expect to see in my lifetime.

Paganism on Speaking of Faith

Army Guy called me from the road to tell me about a show playing right now on WBUR: an interview of an ecologist and pagan on the public radio show Speaking of Faith. It focuses on paganism, with an interview of Adrian Ivakhiv, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and author of Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona. I’m listening to it now and I’m impressed with Ivakhiv’s historically grounded view of paganism — what we know of the old folk traditions, what has survived, and what the neopagan movement is about today.

You can read about and listen to the show here:

http://www.onbeing.org/program/pagans-ancient-and-modern/transcript/1040

I’m also glad that this interview underscores the deep respect for the earth, a desire to preserve the earth’s beauty, that is central to pagan spirituality. Not all pagans are environmentalists, and not all environmentalists are pagans, but in terms of my own deeply held, spiritual values, one flows naturally from the other.